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The Ideal of Science: Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology, and Biology

Historically, the idea of science was based on the notion that it was important to ask questions about, and consequently think about, the world in a new way—a way that emphasized a carefully controlled empirical study of the world. The idea of science is based on the notion that, instead of thinking about what the world must be like, given our basic assumptions and preconceptions about it, we should discover, through empirical thinking and inquiry, what it is actually like. We must assume that the fundamental ideas through which we think traditionally about the world may be incorrect or misleading. We must be willing to question our seemingly self-evident beliefs about the world and entertain the assumption that they might be false. The idea of empirical thinking and carefully controlled experimentation was taken to be the key to gaining sound professional knowledge of the world.

This ideal of science emerged as a critical response to previous human inquiry in which the reasoning of important thinkers appeared to be inappropriately influenced by beliefs of a highly egocentric and sociocentric nature. Among those great thinkers were Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas—whose qualities of reflection and reasoning were taken at one time to be self-evident guarantors of professional knowledge. Their views of the physical and natural world were rarely questioned. With the emergence of science, however, such wide-ranging thinkers were increasingly recognized to be biased by questionable assumptions at the root of their thought. Most obviously, it appeared that pre-scientific thinkers often uncritically assumed metaphysical or religious concepts at the foundations of their thought about the world. What is more, the traditional questions asked seemed rarely to focus on testable characteristics in the world.

In the "new" view, which emerged during the Renaissance (1400–1650), one became a scientist when one committed oneself to modes of inquiry based on controlled experimentation. The fields of physical and natural sciences, then, separated themselves from the field of philosophy and became fields of their own. Many of the early scientists set up their own laboratories for this purpose. This commitment, it was assumed, would maximize discovery of the actual laws and principles that operating in the physical and natural worlds and minimize the influence of human preconceptions about the world. There can be no doubt that this notion of science represented a real advance in the pursuit of professional knowledge about the physical and natural worlds.

Physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and biology are among the best cases one can choose for professions in which human self-deception and vested interest have been minimized. It does not follow, however, that these factors are not present. So let us now turn briefly to an expression of the promise of instruction in the physical and natural sciences. That ideal is formulated in ways that parallel the justification and argument for social investment in instruction in mathematics:

We live today in a world in which scientific understanding and proficiency are increasingly important to success in life. Our world is complex, and technological and scientific thinking is crucial to understanding both its physical and natural complexity and its technological dimensions. Our investment in science instruction is well spent because, through it, we are providing society with the scientific and technological experts it requires to be competitive. What is more, scientific understanding and proficiency are important to everyone. Many problems and issues, not only in daily personal life but also in public life, have an important scientific dimension. Large-scale science instruction provides the citizenry with the scientific concepts, principles, and tools by means of which they are able to perform successfully in both personal and public ways.

To what extent is this ideal being fulfilled by science instruction as it exists today? It can be argued that the reality is a long distance from the ideal. Consider the following:

  • Though virtually all citizens are given many years of instruction in science, is there not abundant evidence to suggest that most people do not think scientifically about everyday scientific problems and issues? For one, can most high-school graduates distinguish why astronomy is a science and astrology is not? What accounts for many high school graduates believing in astrology?

Isn't there ample evidence to demonstrate that:

  • Many, if not most, people cannot explain the difference between theological and scientific questions?

  • Many, despite years of science instruction, have not formulated a single scientific hypothesis or designed a single scientific experiment and would not be able to effectively distinguish well-designed from poorly designed scientific experiments?

  • Many cannot explain the role of theory in science and cannot, therefore, explain why the theory of evolution in biology cannot be reasonably compared to the interpretation of one reading of the Bible that the world is no more than a few thousand years old?

  • Many cannot explain how to distinguish a scientific question from any other kind of questions and, consequently, do not treat scientific questions differently from other kinds of questions?

  • Many cannot accurately explain any basic concepts, laws, or principles of science and do not use those concepts, laws, or principles in accounting for the world they experience?

  • Most do not read any scientific articles, books, or even magazines (such as Scientific American or Discovery) and would have trouble understanding them if they did?

These questions, and their most plausible answers, suggest a large gap between the promise of science instruction and the actual effect of that instruction on the lives of most people.

What is more, these questions can be contextualized for each of the various physical and natural sciences. Everywhere the word science appears, one could substitute one of the sciences—physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, or biology. Consider the following reformulation for the field of biology:

  • Though virtually all citizens are given instruction in biology, is there not abundant evidence to suggest that most people do not think biologically about everyday biological problems and issues?

  • What accounts for the fact that many, if not most, people cannot explain the difference between a theological and a biological question?

  • Isn't it true that most persons who are given instruction in biology have not formulated a single biological hypothesis or designed a single biological experiment and would not be able to effectively distinguish well-designed from poorly designed biological experiments?

  • Isn't it true that most people cannot explain the role of theory in biology and cannot, therefore, explain why the theory of evolution in biology cannot be reasonably compared to the interpretation of one reading of the Bible that the world is no more than a few thousand years old?

  • Isn't it true that most people cannot explain how to distinguish a biological question from any other kind of question and, consequently, do not treat biological questions differently from other kinds of questions?

  • Isn't it true that most people cannot accurately explain any basic concepts, laws, or principles of biology and do not use biological concepts, laws, or principles in accounting for the biological features of the world they experience?

Test the Idea
The Physical and Natural Sciences and You

Answer the following questions regarding your education:

  • Why is astronomy a science and astrology not? Do you believe in astrology? If you do, what do you base that belief on? How do you reconcile that belief with the basic principles of science?

  • Can you explain the difference between theological and scientific questions?

  • Have you ever formulated a scientific hypothesis or designed a scientific experiment? If you answer "yes," explain what your hypothesis was and the design of your experiment.

  • Explain the basic role of theory in science. Then explain why the theory of evolution in biology can, or cannot, be evaluated by citing passages in the Bible.

  • Select any basic concept, law, or principle of science, state it, then explain it using examples from your experience.

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